How Do Pinball Machines Work

Pinball machines have evolved into complex, computer-controlled mechanical games over the decades, but the layout has nearly always consisted of an inclined playfield and a backbox – the machine’s brain.

To score points, players aim for targets, bumpers and slingshots.

When a ball hits one of these, two contacts are forced together in an electro-mechanical switch, completing a circuit and registering a strike.

Every switch is wired to a unique reference point within a switch matrix. A microprocessor locates a strike by detecting the change in electrical current at a particular grid reference point. It then processes the instruction dictated by the software stored in an EPROM chip (to increase the score for example).

Most of the moving elements, like the flippers, are controlled by solenoids. Solenoids are electromagnetic tubes that, when powered, attract metal actuators towards them. This attraction can be manipulated into quick movements by rapidly switching the power on or off to certain solenoids – handy for kicking balls away from bumpers.

Pinball MachinesTilt sensors detect deliberate tilting and excessive shaking while a weighted metal rod swings like a pendulum within a conductive ring, this means that over-enthusiastic players will cause the rod to swing and make contact with the ring, activating a warning.

History of Pinball Machines

1700 – In the game of bagatelle, players use cue sticks to hit balls up an inclined playfield which rebound off pins into scoring holes.

1871 – Patent awarded for Montague Redgrave’s “ball shooter” – a coiled spring ball launcher, similar to today’s plungers.

1931 – Coin-operated pingame machines like Whiffle, and Baffle Ball surge in popularity. Pingames start to be referred as pinball machines.

1933 – Pinball machines go electric. Pacific Amusements Company’s ‘Contact’ machine features electric bells and solenoids, adding momentum to the ball.

1939 – American cities begin to outlaw pinball machines. As ‘games of chance’ they are classified as illegal gambling devices.

1947 – Gottlieb’s Humpty Dumpty machine features the first electromechanical flippers, billed as “the greatest triumph in pingame history”.

1976 – New York ban overturned. Editor Roger Sharpe proves pinball requires skill by correctly predicting a shot in front of journalists.

1977 – Solid state microprocessors are introduced, bringing new game innovations, reliability and design elements.

1991 – The Adams Family machine is released and becomes the most successful pinball game of all time.

1999Pinball 2000 is launched, featuring interactive 3D holographic videogame characters. It achieves limited success but is discontinued.

2010 – Just a handful of 201 pinball manufacturers remain, the largest being Stern Pinball, Inc. It produces three to four titles a year.

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